Six Nations 2016: Scotland need big guns fit and firing

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
Scotland reached the last eight at the World Cup
Scotland reached the last eight at the World Cup
RBS Six Nations
Dates: Saturday, 6 February - Saturday, 19 March
Coverage: Live coverage of eight games on BBC One and BBC One HD. Minute-by-minute coverage of all the home nations' games on BBC Radio 5 live and 5 live sports extra, and across the BBC's digital platforms.

On the face of it, Vern Cotter's squad for the Six Nations looks strong and reassuring.

All of the go-to guys from the World Cup are there. The near-heroes from that epic quarter-final against Australia are on the list with a few welcome additions.

Alex Dunbar, who was one of Europe's best centres before getting cut down and missing the World Cup,external-link is back. There are deserving calls for two new props - Rory Sutherland and Zander Fagerson. The admirable John Barclay has reappeared.

While you scan the list of names and think back to what might have been against the Wallabies in the autumn, the temptation is for grandiose thinking. Cotter knows his players better now than he did 12 months ago.

In a relatively short time in charge he almost got them to a World Cup semi-final. On top of that, other nations like England, France and even Ireland are in varying degrees of flux.

Could this be the year that Scotland are elevated above the mundane?

Then you scratch below the surface and you see the complications. On paper, yes, this looks like an exciting crew. In reality, though, too many of Cotter's marquee players are out of form and some others are injured and are struggling to make the early games.

Fitness and form worries

On top of that there are a few more who are just coming back from injury and might not be match-sharp. Or, at least, not Test match sharp.

Let's take it from full-back. Stuart Hogg is one of the most exhilarating runners in Six Nations rugby, a talent to quicken the pulse. We haven't seen much of him at his best since the World Cup, though.

Glasgow centre Alex Dunbar
Alex Dunbar is fit again after missing the World Cup through injury

Hogg has lost his mojo in Glasgow's recent malaise. It's been four straight losses for Gregor Townsend's team and the loss of confidence is obvious.

He's not alone in needing to find something - and quickly. Tommy Seymour is a fine predator, even against the best international teams in the world. He's a proven poacher, but right now he's injured and even before he was injured he was out of sorts.

Sean Maitland will surely start on the opposite wing, but Maitland is playing for a losing side, London Irish, these days. Tim Visser was going really well for his new club, Harlequins, until he tore his hamstring. He's in Cotter's squad but he'll most probably miss the early rounds.

Mark Bennett and Peter Horne are also in Cotter's squad but their inclusion is something of a mirage. They're both on the casualty list at the moment.

Cotter doesn't strike you as a man who gets uptight about things, but the injury profile of Bennett, in particular, will surely be stressing him out. His shoulder problem could heal in time to play some part in the Six Nations - or not.

The midfield has Dunbar and Matt Scott and Duncan Taylor in the cavalry. A strong line-up, but on his day Bennett is capable of world class and Scotland need all the world class it can get if it's to have some joy in this Six Nations.

Finn Russell, like Stuart Hogg, has not been at his best for a while. He's another one to say your prayers for. A confident Russell is a joy and Cotter needs him to return.

Recent additions raring to go

WP Nel and John Hardie are not new to this Scotland team, but they will be new to the Six Nations. Nel has eight caps and only one of them was won at Murrayfield. Hardie has five caps - in Turin, Paris, Gloucester, Newcastle and Twickenham.

John Hardie in action for Edinburgh
Hardie has made a huge impact for improving Edinburgh this season

He knows what Murrayfield is like as an Edinburgh player, but not as a Scotland player. The Calcutta Cup match will be his first nod in the capital.

The pair of them have made a big difference in a short space of time. They bring scrummaging power and open-side devilment and work-rate. And optimism. Scotland's pack will be better than 12 months ago.

Alasdair Dickinson has played precious little rugby since the World Cup, but Edinburgh's pack - a developing juggernaut - has hardly missed a beat without him and that's a big tribute to Sutherland, who has occupied Dickinson's place in the front-row.

Sutherland fully warrants his inclusion, but equally it's a relief to see Dickinson on his way back. He's a senior player and such an important cog. Sutherland's day will come for sure.

Gray area of strength

Mercifully, the Gray brothers are in rude health. Jonny might be captain of a struggling Glasgow side but his own game is holding up nicely. His big brother - very, very big - has been going well at Castres, who are improving their position in the Top 14.

They're both high quality players, but the cupboard isn't exactly bursting open with outstanding back-up. Rob Harley would have been an option, but he's injured. So, too, the desperately unlucky Grant Gilchrist. Tim Swinson and Ben Toolis have made it instead.

Jonny Gray and Richie Gray
The Gray brothers form a formidable second-row partnership

There shouldn't have been any surprise when Ryan Wilson was left out of Cotter's selection. He's not delivered his best stuff of late and now he's got a potential suspension hanging over his head. Understandably, Cotter is moving on without him.

Against Australia, Cotter went with Blair Cowan at six, David Denton at eight and John Hardie at seven. He rather stumbled on the combination - Cowan was not in the original squad - but it worked.

Josh Strauss could shake things up at six - though he's not been at his thunderous best either and he has missed Glasgow's last two games through injury - and Barclay might even do the same if he's given a shot. But he won't be holding his breath - not after missing the cut for the World Cup.

Chris Fusaro and Adam Ashe are the extra back-rows.

The big omissions from the World Cup squad are Wilson and the Glasgow hooker, Fraser Brown, who is another of the walking wounded. Cotter, however, has not given Brown the same latitude as other injured players in his squad.

The coach is likely to spend the coming weeks in silent contemplation - he does that a lot - about what his team might be capable of if everybody turns up with their best stuff. Right now, that's not the case with some marquee players in his backline. And it's a worry.